The Pope’s Men & The Pope’s Legacy

Péter Tarjányi & Rita Dosek
Novels (Libri), 2012 & 2013, 450 & 500 pages

Tarjanyi_Dosek_konyvek3dWith the death of Pope John Paul II, grave secrets formerly hidden behind the walls of the Vatican are revealed: the secret war of the Pope with the KGB. And now it has become Tom Erkel’s responsibility to continue this war.

When his unit, which specialises in hunting down war criminals, receives a mysterious assignment from a stranger, first he thinks they will investigate an old genocide case which goes back to World War II. But the evidence gradually unveils a major conspiracy of the KGB which involves many prestigious priests and which had determined the recent history of the Catholic Church. What happened in Rome in 1981, when Ali Agca attempted to assassinate the Pope? How can this event be related to the assassination of more than a dozen priests during the war? And how does it influence not only the past but the future of the most powerful religious organisation on Earth?

With the help of his friends from the international special forces, Tom succeeds in revealing the truth about the conspiracy and the crimes dating back through the years, but it doesn’t mean the end of his adventures. If he wants to save the Pope’s legacy, he has to be the first to find the secret list of the people working for the KGB within the church, and decide whether to make them public or to hide them for ever.

This fast-paced thriller, based on actual events, presents a detailed and accurate depiction of Eastern Europe as the Iron Curtain crumbles, the KGB’s unique method of pulling informers into its web, and the workings of the secret services as they plan a series of strikes that personally involve bishops positioned frighteningly close to the Pope. The recent Vatileaks scandal and the ensuing cover-up represent only a fraction of what actually occurs on behind closed doors in Rome. By the end of the book, readers will also understand what might possibly lead to a pope resigning his throne.


“Were it not for the authors’ names on the cover, I would think I’m reading the work of an American writer.”

 “It is quite surreal to see yourself pass from the curiosity of the first pages, thinking ’How much of this might be true?’, into the deep desperation towards the end, saying to yourself ’This is not real, right?’”
Gergely Tóth,

“Spies in cassocks, priests working for the KGB, and a database which could fundamentally change European power relations, should it fall into the wrong hands: in their adventure novel, Péter Tarjányi and Rita Dosek use the question of the Holy See’s involvement with communist secret services as a starting point.”
Tamás Koncz,

Complete Hungarian manuscript and
a 50-page sample translation in English available



SzerzokPope Benedict XVI announced his unexpected decision to resign in March of this year. Of course, the press have insisted that this was somehow connected to the increasing number of stories of corruption emerging from the Vatican in recent years and linked it to the leak of correspondence exchanged on the subject of paedophilia within the rank and file of the Catholic Church. These issues all go to make The Pope’s Men a book that is very much of the moment. Might we also say that you have potentially put your heads into the lion’s mouth with this novel? What was your initial aim when you sat down to write?

R.D.: It was to inform but also entertain at the same time. You’d be surprised at how much more can be achieved by a few words on a page than with physical effort. Perhaps the fact that we have told the story of state secret services wrapped up into a thriller has meant that we have been able to draw people’s attention to what is going on around them in the world and that history isn’t the stuff we read about in schoolbooks but is something that surrounds us every day of our lives.

Does this mean that the fictional part is to draw attention to an issue while the real content is what we should be thinking about? It’s obvious that you move with ease through this underworld of clandestine conspiracy but quite how much of what appears on the page is true?

P.T.: I’d say that it’s around 70 percent while 30 percent is fiction. We made a concerted effort to group the information in a way that allowed us to drop it into the plot and still not offend the state interests of any nation. But the stunts and recruitment methods are a complete reflection of what actually went on. It has always been important for me to write with authenticity and so that is why we interviewed a considerable number of people who actually experienced this period firsthand. The various incidents and attacks described in the book came from my own personal experiences because I worked as the head of the Hungarian Police Special Service for seven years. It’s an organisation that specialises in anti-terrorism. I was involved in a number of interventions as coordinator, planner and even participant and I have also studied and taught anti-terrorism both here in Europe and overseas. I have worked protecting leading statesmen both at home and abroad, as well as a swath of foreign diplomats, the Dalai Lama and even Pope John Paul II who sits at the centre of our novel. You couldn’t for a minute begin to imagine how many hours I have spent profiling potential criminal threats, and I have worked a lot with various allied organisations – secret services, operatives, reconnaissance teams – to ensure that interventions were successfully executed.

Is that why you are so familiar with the logic employed by international criminal organisations?

P.T.: That’s partly the case, but you mustn’t forget that my life has been a little more complicated than that. I grew up through what turned out to be the complete transformation of Central Europe. I began my military training with the KGB in Moscow in 1987 but communism collapsed in 1989 and my life took a sudden turn. Completing military and then police training before, during and shortly after the regime change created a crazy kind of doublethink. I was born into the People’s Republic of Hungary but swore my oath as an officer in the Republic of Hungary. Back then I was taught that “NATO are our enemies” and “America be damned” only to go on to protect Bill Clinton no more than a couple of years later and then witness Hungary joining the selfsame NATO. Our enemies became our friends and our friends became our enemies. I have met a number of foreign secret agents over the years including Brits, Americans and Russians. I also had the opportunity to familiarise myself with the inner workings of the secret service organisation run by the Vatican.
Stephen King said that a man should write based on his own experiences. That’s exactly what I have done here.

We have heard quite a lot about the scandalous lives of priests recently but practically nothing of their recruitment into espionage. Why did the KGB want to get into the Church?

P.T.: Today it’s possible for a government to monitor every written and spoken word should it choose and dictatorial states may in fact attempt to do so. But no government will ever be able to do one thing and that is to look into people’s hearts and minds. However, the KGB came to the realisation that they could do just that with the help of the Catholic priesthood and this provided them with a tool for total control. Hungary had hundreds of Church agents reporting to the communist secret service and a handful of them reported directly to Moscow. Of course, no one wants to live in a world with no mystery but neither do people like the idea of the state or the Church keeping secrets. And sadly the Church is in possession of certain secrets that have been deliberately kept from us in order to hinder rather than help us.

How much actual research did you have to do to write the book?

R.D.: Masses. It wasn’t writing it that took the time, it was uncovering and nurturing contacts and slowly drawing out the information we were after. It took a lot of time to find those who had witnessed events with their own eyes – to say nothing of how hard it was to get them talking!
P.T.: I guess that I was lucky in that respect, because the men who used to hold rank above me knew many of the religious, state security, secret service and anti-espionage heads from the era, and so it was with their help that we were able to gain access to the people who had worked at the top in these areas back in the seventies and eighties. They literally passed us from hand to hand. The toughest to get were the former spy masters who always hesitated several times before eventually turning up to a meeting, and then only spoke in generalities until they realised that we weren’t writing about them in person. Then they started to really talk.

Did you just want to write a simple thriller or was the book designed as a historical novel with a deeper message?

P.T.: The latter, of course. The main message of the book is that where there is fear, there will always be servitude. And this wasn’t only true of the communist regime, because it’s just as valid today. And there was one more important lesson that we learned while we were writing the book: the past is never closed. History has the capacity to repeat itself at any time if we forget it too quickly.

(Translated by Ralph Berkin)


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